A Feel of the In-Between: An Interview With Juice Aleem

Toward the end of 2018, The Opiate’s Editor-at-Large, Malik Crumpler, had a conversation with Birmingham rapper-turned-space travel writer Juice Aleem about his book, Afrofutures and Astro Black travel: A passport to melanated futures. They discussed Aleem’s atypical upbringing, as well as his artistic process for writing, researching, rapping and live sketching. Furthermore, the two examine the ancient and contemporary traditions of diasporic lineages involved in Afrofuturism/Afro Flux. If you’re not familiar with the dense catalogue of Juice Aleem’s works, festivals, comics, music or journalism, check out his website.

Malik (M): How did you come up with this form? It’s almost like a collage, you know what I mean? Of the ancestors–not just innovators–but the ancestors of what you’re propositioning as Afrofuturism, right? How did you set it up?

Juice Aleem (JA): Well, the main thing I did was keep in mind that people have a short attention span. So, I wanted the book to be easily readable in chunks, you know? It’s a short book. So, you can read a paragraph and just roll with it. Like the whole idea is I called it, A Passport To A Melanated Future. So the idea was, even with the paper, the more pulpy type paper, cuz I had a chance to put this as a coffee table book, with a publisher and though, obviously you stand to make less money doing it in the format that I did, what I wanted is for it to be in people’s books, in their purses in their pockets. So, you don’t feel a way about folding it up, as long as you read it, it can go in the glovebox. You can access it. It’s not this fancy book that you don’t want to touch. You know?

M: Right.

JA: And that’s the thing, um that’s always impacted me. A brother once told me about how the Koran must be respected–

M: Top shelf.

JA: But, it must also be accessible.

M: Right.

JA: It must also be physically accessible. So yeah, the book is also nonlinear when we’re talking about indigenous, native, original and African forms of looking at time, usually we’re looking at something that’s nonlinear. So, you can pick up that book and read any chapter or any paragraph, and go back, forward, left, right, up, down and still gain an understanding. Each chapter deals with a specific way of looking at not just simply Afrofuturism but also just left-field black expressions, you know? So, one chapter’s more about women equals the female form, the female mind. One chapters about linguistics equals symbolism, language–spoken and unspoken. One chapter’s about music equals sound, sonics.

M: Right.

JA: So, that doesn’t have to go in a linear ordinal way, a 1, 2, 3, 4 format. You know, it’s a 5, 9, 2, 3 kind of format. And also, as I say in the book, it’s the understanding that all numbers are just a representation of 0 and 1, anyway. Every number is, you know, 3…is 1+1+1. So, I’m always mindful of that in numbers. It’s only the 0 that gives it power, it’s the nothing that gives it power. That’s how I put the book together, that’s how the format was. So the zeroes, in essence, the nots, the cyphers are us that can add to it, you know? Add power to any of the thoughts within that. So now, me and you are speaking equals 1+1. Now, we get to 2. And again, in the nonlinear narrative, as you say, like a collage, there’s a page when I’m talking about language. There’s a page where it is a collage that I did and printed it. So, it’s just about getting information out of what appears to be nonlinear or nonsense. To make sense, out of the “non.” Again, coming out of “the nothing.” So, the ancestors or the future descendants, future ancestors–they’re speaking in between what I’m speaking because I’m speaking in between them.

M: All of those images that are in the book, that’s all you, right?

JA: Yeah, yeah. I did the front cover, that’s my picture, that’s my imagery–well, that’s a friend of mine, in the front picture. I took the picture. The only thing I did–I had a friend put together, like the typeface and you know, the setting of the book. But yeah, the bird equals the Sankofa bird, if you look closely–even though, again, because of the pulp type paper, it doesn’t hold super high resolution–if you look, there’s circuitry within the bird. I talk about myths in the sense of how Sun Ra talks about it.

M: Right.

JA: He says that, often myth contains more continual or more universal truth than some of the facts that we have. Because depending on which timeframe you’re around, they will tell you that the sun rotates around the earth. You know? They will tell you that the moon is made of cheese. You know? They will tell you various different things at different times. They will tell you that women are evil.

M: Right.

JA: It’s not that facts aren’t good thing [but] which facts lasted the longest, you know? Because even with our greater and greater understandings of light, magnetism, dark darkness, dark matter, dark energy, even those things change day in, day out. Every time you look, there’s a new paper that says this, or we found this particle, we found this new part of the genome, the human genome that does this, or this triggers that. So, these things are continually changing yet the myths of, let’s say, the papyrus of Ani, or things like that, you know, the Book of Coming Forth By Day and the so-called, Book of the Dead. That whole set of tales and the whole Trials Of Maat, and the different levels of Heaven, in order to get to a form of Godhood, that hasn’t changed, you know, that has not changed, in what four, five thousand, six thousand years–depending on how old you think those are because those texts are usually copies of older texts, that they haven’t found as of yet. If someone tells you, There’s no life after death–cool…cool, but you do know you’re already living a life after death. You know what I’m saying? Like, day in day out. Every day you get up. So, you can disprove anything and the older stories have so much more in it.

M: Were you always into studying all this? Or was there a period in your life when you just said, Okay I’ma go left and stay there. Or were you always that Left Dude?

JA: I have slowly, slowly, slowly realized I was always the Left Dude. I didn’t intend to be. I didn’t want to be.

M: Okay, okay.

JA: You know a good point I always say when I’m trying to like work out where I am, where I’m from, where I’m going…the song [by] Mob Deep, “Shook Ones.” I always say, I used to be a half way crook, scarred to death, scarred to look. You can’t stay there, you can’t stay on that fence. I was in between people, like anyone: hustlers, street people, nerds, athletes, football people (I mean football with the feet). I was always in between, Black, White, inner city, outer city, thuggy but not thuggy. Reggae but not fully into the Reggae. Dancehall but I’m Hip Hop, but I listen to Rock but I got my comics. “But yo, what you doin’ with them comics? Are you some kinda–” or you know, “What’s wrong with you? Man, dem need to fix up. What’s the matter with ya Juice, what’s gwanna on man? You, ya still read comic book? Isn’t that for the youth, man?” And again, the myth, the innate, “Look, who isn’t into comic books now?” So, I’ve been talking about some of these things for a while, I been rhyming them, mentioning them in rhymes. So, we’ve been on these things and now people can come to me and say, Yo evolutionary theory. 

People say, they expect that one minute there’s, I don’t know, there’s a dinosaur and the next minute the dinosaur has a chicken baby, you know, and then they go, I don’t believe that. The thing is, you don’t necessarily see evolution like so, even in the idea of it–this is something that takes millions of years, this is something that takes no limit of time. So, you don’t realize you’re this thing… Like when someone said to me, they’d just read Kodwo Eshun’s More Brilliant Than The Sun, and that was doing the rounds in certain fields around London, certain like artistic, kind of more bohemian black communities, that I have a lot of respect for, those brothers and sisters, and they where like, “Juice, this is you, this is you–” I literally moved my hands up and said, “Naw, naw, naw that ain’t me. You can’t put a title on me. I’m something else.” Like, I’ve been in this in-between world all the time. So I’m like, I’m something else. I’m in a different path to you. Like if you want that, run with it, know what I mean? I’m looking at it, like “Yo, even on the evolution scale, we still got sharks.”

M: Right.

JA: I realize that, maybe my lane is already here. Maybe I don’t have to be in the middle, as such. I don’t have to choose, you know like when you start looking at the Tao, and things like that. It’s like, any too Left, too Right, is an extreme. And you’re trying to find as they say, The Way.

M: Right.

JA: And I realized, I already was On The Way.

M: So, it was more instinct?

JA: Yeah, you know like, and that’s when I realized, “Okay I’m talking about DNA memory, I’m already living off of it. I’m running off of it already.”

M: You’re weaving in the alchemists and the rappers of today with the Rakims and the Jerus, and dadadada. So um, since it’s such a dense cross genre book, but it doesn’t feel pretentious–it doesn’t feel like someone was sitting there trying to make something difficult, you know what I mean? What was your process of getting that voice, that tone, to make it so easy to read, the tone is like ya man’s talkin’ to you, but it doesn’t feel like it’s from any particular region…

JA: It wasn’t difficult [for me] because this is something I’ve always tried to express to people, especially [in] older interviews when we first started to get a little bit of notoriety through music and people always come with this, “Oh, so you copied American style and you did this…”

M: Huhn.

JA: And of course, Hip Hop was birthed in the U.S.A.–there’s no doubt about that. But, it has roots elsewhere, it has, again, a lineage, it has a DNA. And that’s what we were tapping into here. Like, when I looked at a New Yorker of a certain time–you know those certain pictures that Jamel Shabazz will have?

M: Yep.

JA: I’m looking at the Kangol that was the same Kangol that I borrowed from my father, you know what I mean?

M: Yeah, yeah.

JA: My father wasn’t trying to be Hip Hop. I’m looking at the same string vest, I’m looking at the same Clarks, I’m looking at the same Wallies, I’m looking at the same shoes, the same. So, there was a lineage a lot of folks–especially white folks, when they’re interviewing you they’re looking at Oh, Hip Hop, New York Tri-State area. 

M: Yeah.

JA: 1974, dadadadada Grandmaster Flash, Kool Herc. They’re not looking at Kool Herc: A Black Man.

M: Right.

JA: A Jamaican black man. In a place that’s alien to him, trying to survive and melding, changing, evolving and being futurists with his culture so he can get on and survive within that culture. And they’re not looking at people in the U.K. especially at a time when people go, Oh, there’s no black people in the U.K.

M: Cuz they hide y’all that much from the media they give to the world.

JA: Yeah, cuz I’m very mindful of where they point the camera on BBC or CNN when they go to certain countries. As soon as we see a dark face, they turn the camera away. You know, I been watching them since I was young, you know what I mean? So, I’m looking at it like, the people that are looking like me and having some form of success in life–the cousins and brothers and aunts and great-aunts that I have–that are doing something and having money, they’re not necessarily the ones that are having the Caribbean, where my parents are coming from. They’re not the ones in the U.K. where we’re struggling and fighting in a world that doesn’t even want us there and doesn’t even recognize us, doesn’t take a picture of us, doesn’t want us in the picture. But the ones in the U.S. also have a similar struggle–but some of those people have land.

M: Word.

JA: Some of those people have property, some of those people have managed to be judges and lawyers and teachers and heads of this and leader of that, you know? We [blacks in the U.K.] have yet to produce an Oprah, a Farrakhan, a Malcolm [X], there are analogs but they’re not any way in the same form of success, you know? There is Americanism, there’s Americana like McDonald’s, these kinds of things, hot dogs, Clint Eastwood, Western films, that’s a part of it, you know? That’s their surface, like being cool. Yo, man I’m just trying to be cool man.

M: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

JA: There’s that on the surface but on the deeper level, there’s like I said, there’s the DNA memory, there’s the Caribbean influence and there’s also, “Oh, my people there do well.” As much as they have issues and contention and a history of oppression, some of them manage to break through. They have their own programs, their own networks, they have their own radio shows, they have their own publications, clothing lines, all things which here, were not happening on a major scale and the backbone of that for me, was the pirate radio which got smashed around fifteen years ago, and they did a very good job of destroying thee African-Caribbean backbone of culture here. And it’s taken a long time to regain and what it was, was that the [pirate] stations here, were the backbone in the sense of: I can touch, contact, connect, promote to a community in Leeds, Manchester, London, Birmingham, Liverpool, anywhere where there was a black community at that instant–this is pre-internet, pre-everything like that, just like how we’re talking now. Well imagine, on each side of the conversation, there’s, I don’t know, ten thousand people.

M: Wow, okay.

JA: You understand?

M: Mhm.

JA: So, that was the strength. That’s when the sound systems was running things, the Reggae connection was still big, the Rasta connection was still big, and if you look at certain pictures and things from the 70s and 80s and you’d have like, African Liberation Day, Handsworth Park (which some people have heard of Handsworth due to Steel Pulse, as a Reggae group out of the U.K., out of Birmingham). You look at the picture and it’s thousands of people, thousands of black folks, most of them with dreads, tams (you know the big, big hats) you know the whole, the whole Rasta look, even if all of them weren’t Rasta, that was the feel, that was the vibe. There was an instant sense of what and who you’re standing for and who and what you’re standing against as far as police brutality, racism, school systems, etc., etc. that was informed heavily by the pirate stations, not [just] the music played but also what was known as Dutchpat talks, Dutchpat community talks. So, you’d talk about community things that were needed for the local center or school and they really commodified that and they made it all illegal. They used to say the signals were interfering and it was actually, Birmingham was influential in that, even more so than London really, actually. They used to say that it was interfering with the Emergency Services, so we have to stop it.

M: Classic.

JA: Then it became heavily illegal. It became, “If you get caught, [we’re] taking all your records, your transmitter–gone.” Obviously, that’s your life, you know?

M: Right.

JA: If you’re a real DJ, that’s thousands of pounds of equipment gone and that’s probably ten or fifteen years of collecting and there’s also fines and prison sentences. So, what they did, they offered certain jobs, they offered us an amount of jobs and said, Okay the first set of people to stop working on or transmitting from pirate stations, we gotta job for you and you can work on these legal stations and still do what you’re doing. And that’s when the music changed and this is very similar to what happened with like Hot 97 [in New York] you know, what people were saying, that like Oh, yeah Funkmaster Flex and what happened, how the music changed in the sense of the commerciality of it, what they were talking about in the music. Everything basically, payola.

M: Yep.

JA: All that was very similar–it’s not the same but very, very similar. I’m not going to say it was just the music. And the face of Black Britain changed over the course of a few years, very slowly to the point where… yeah, I’ll leave that there.

M: So, were you rapping before you started writing prose or did they all go one and one?

JA: Again, back to what I just said about the connections between Reggae and Rap, Roots music and even Rock. I just used to write things that rhymed, you know, in the back of school books and stuff like that. So, as I got more into Rap, I was writing more. But I used to write short stories.

M: What genre were you in as a youngster with the short stories? Like, what were you writing in your raps as a youngster?

Photo by Benji Reid
Photo by Benji Reid

JA: Um, my raps were pretty, in a way very generic, you know, very I’m the best at writing raps!

M: Yeah yeah.

JA: You know.

M: But as you say in the book, You write enough into existence, It becomes a thing.

JA: Yeah? Yeah. And the very last quote that I put in the book is a song that I did with New Flesh.

M: Out of Ordinary?

JA: Out of ordinary becomes the everyday
Crushing bricks in my hands cuz I wrote it this way
Seeing further than the farthest sight can see
Watching you listen to me master every ceremony
Female celebrities lap-dance for free
Drunk or sober no hangover walkin’ on the Yack sea
Stoppin’ time with my heart when it beats then it starts
Traverse the 8 dimension, surf neutrinos & Quarks
Implode explode come feel my heavy load
Arms move to write the futures whilst I wrote
From the past listen this present-tence end quote

That was like Future-proofin’ my lyrics. You know, I very much don’t use slang of the day, things like that.

M: You make up a lot of your slang right? Even in the book you’re creating words or you’re abbreviating words to a science with the symbol of the C or the U, you know what I mean?

JA: Yeah, yeah so, I mean that’s the formation of actual slang, it’s a language that you speak with those who understand your language… Again, that’s something that’s gotten commodified. So if you look at um, the Bay Area–you get all the Sic Wid It, E-40 and all of them, they would talk about Skrilla.

M: Yeah.

JA: That was their word, you know. Now, everybody knows Skrilla. Things get–it’s cool, that we all know–so you don’t get lost in the mix. But, when things get commodified because of the U.S. and it’s not Hip Hop per se, but commercialization which has become such a form of colonization that even in South Africa or South Birmingham or even probably Moscow, people are going to say Skrilla now.

M: Yeah.

JA: Which as an individual may make you feel cool. But it doesn’t allow you to have a two-way cultural exchange anymore because they’ve then maybe lost their word for cash or money.

M: Ha, yeah.

JA: What’s their word for Skrilla? Cuz we’re all drinking Coca-Cola, we’re all eating McDonald’s, you know. And I also make a point of saying, Afrofuturism will not be an outpost for U.S.-centric colonization. So, it’s not that I don’t love things that’ve come out of the U.S. It’s not that I’m against America or something like that and I’m definitely not against black folks and brown folks in the U.S.

M: Right.

JA: But I’m also mindful that America is also Mexico, America is also Canada, America is also Venezuela. The Americas is also Jamaica, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Trinidad, Barbados. So, even in the language we censor ourselves, we are racists against ourselves even in the language that we use. And then people say, Make America Great Again. Is Trump talking about Venezuela?

M: (laughter)

JA: I mean, maybe not.

M: [Would you consider your book] a manifesto or emerald tablet or something new, something different?

JA: Definitely a manifesto of sorts. It can be used as an emerald tablet, as to say, that whole passport. You know what’s been beautiful is people coming back to me and saying, Oh, I found it like this. Oh, it’s changed my life. Oh, I’ve started exercising again because you said something about Tai Chi, Egyptian yoga. Oh, oh I think I need to learn more about history. I didn’t know all these things you’re referencing.

M: Yeah.

JA: Oh, oh this is quite heavy. Oh, this is quite light, I didn’t know you could put it so succinctly. So, everyone’s coming with a different aspect to it and that’s what passports and traveling is all about. Giving them different ways to move about, to think about things. I just appreciate all of the feedback, even yourself gettin’ at me when you got hold of the book. That’s what’s really been the learning curve.

M: Word.

JA: You asked what kind of genre I wrote. I didn’t know genre, I just knew when I’m talking about being, you know 8, 9, 10 years old. You know, I didn’t know genre.

M: Right.

JA: You’d copy certain things. Obviously, I was into Sci-Fi. I was into gaming, again which didn’t fit well with the black kids. Like, Why are those dice that shape? Why you readin’ these books for, man? Why is there a dragon on that book? That’s some witchcraft you dealin’ with there bredrin. You know, it was always like, it was a struggle, you know what I mean? It was a struggle just to be at certain times for that. But at the same time, I was cool with it cuz like I say, I was still around hoodie dudes, you know like, Da Man Dem, know what I mean? So, I was never the tough guy, but I could fight. I was never the thug, but I could be there. I was never the total idiot, but I could–you know what I’m saying?Like I was…something about it, I was cool enough, either cuz I was funny or I could dance. I could always do something, I didn’t have all the flyest clothes, but I had some garms’. Like I had, like I say, I was borrowing my dad’s stuff so I had certain things that man couldn’t drop. You can’t drop this, you ain’t got this, you know? But not cuz I was robbin’, not cuz I was sellin’ drugs, or nothing–just cuz I was different. And because I was cool in my difference, that was my passport and I want to pass the passport on. You can be cool too, black person, brown person, odd person, left-field person, you don’t have to sell that, you don’t have to shoot that, stab that, do what it is they’re saying [you have to do], you can be you. You know what I mean? Find your way, whether it’s through meditation or just drawing, painting, writing. You don’t have to know the genre. Cuz I didn’t know the genre, I just used to write. Sometimes I would copy a pulpy noir style of writing, you know? Which you’d find later on in comics like Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller and things like that. But I didn’t always know genre. I became aware of these things, after what they called–I didn’t finish school–you know, the classic Hip Hop thing: you listen to Rap records, you buy some books, you go to some black meetings. You end up educating yourself, basically. You grab a J.A. Rogers & a Cheikh Anta Diop.

M: Yep.

JA: You know, you become aware of certain things. People ask you, they say, Oh, you must be into philosophy. And oh yeah, yeah. And then they’re talking about you know, Kant, and I’m like, you mean them racist people, like them?

M: Yeah.

JA: They got some alright ideas, but have you heard of Rakim? You know?

M: Right. That’s what I was trippin’ on within the book. That’s what I really appreciated. To put a Pharoahe Monch and a Chino XL next to a Nikola Tesla.

JA: Well, I definitely took on the mantle in a more obvious open and honest kind of way, rather than shied away from it, you know?

M: Mhm.

JA: You know, I’m very fortunate I get to be into, talk to, hang out with young people as well as old people, as well as people like myself, somewhere in the middle, middle-aged people. I have children and I get to–as much as I love the so-called Golden Era, I’m not stuck in it, you know?

M: Right.

JA: I listen to, I like, I wouldn’t run out and buy them in the same way, but I will listen to Lil’ Uzi Vert. I think he’s kinda dope, in his own way, in his own lane. I did a talk and it was about Afrofuturism but one of the things I was presenting as much as I do in the book, actually is that it doesn’t have to, you don’t have to be an Afrofuturist. It’s just a word. It’s just a thing and anything changes, as I say, evolves. You don’t see when it becomes a chicken, or when it becomes a shark or dinosaur, you don’t necessarily see that, you know. So, I am writing. I’m looking at next books, but I have a few options and to go back to something you asked a couple of questions ago, in the writing process and why I put it [together] that way. It was when I was doing the first proper festival (cuz I had done a few Afro Flux events but now I have a festival with comics with this with music) and while I’d been explaining things to people and trying to get them to understand it [I realized] it’s a hard concept to put succinctly in a couple of lines, what Afrofuturism is.

M: Yep.

JA: Therefore, I wrote this short book.

M: There it is, okay.

JA: I wrote about seventy pages, seventy-odd pages. So, that’s it. It forced me to write a book. I had to explain it, I had to explain my position, I had to explain what I’m doing. Um, I had to make it palatable, I had to make it easy, and that also is the writing process. So, it is bite-size chunks, you know? Cuz that’s where we are right now, you have much more impact. You can hear me, I’m long-winded, I’m definitely a ‘round the bushes type of person and I’m aware of that. I love language, I love words, I love communication, I’m an insular person but at the same time, I’m very communicative. So yeah, I’m writing. I have a few things, I’m doing a children’s book. You know what’s weird, I used to write for certain magazines–that was great as well. I’ve started doing art again and I never used to finish my paintings or pictures or whatever. About a year ago I said, “I’m gonna start drawing again.” And I went to a live draw and sketch. Obviously, you know when you do live drawing, the model might only be able to hold the pose for five minutes. You’ve got five minutes to capture that thing.

M: Right.

JA: And at first, you come and you’re trying to do the face, and you miss the body. Then you do another five minute sketch, and you try and do the leg, you miss the face. And it’s just like, you ain’t got time. So, as I came a few times, I was like Yo, hold on. It’s just sketching, you’re trying to capture something in a short space of time, capture the essence of it.

M: Mmm.

JA: And it’s the same, like we did with the music with New Flesh. Because we can be like I say, we can be wordy, we can be very verbose. Some of our concepts are very heavy in comparison to the average rap group.

M: Mhm.

JA: So, what’s New Flesh rapping about? Oh, we’re rapping about, within the speed of light you can do this. Someone else is rapping about, Oh, I’ve had sex last night. You know? It’s a different wavelength. So, I’m learning to sketch and fill out the sketch and have the body there, the colour there, the image there, the feel of the thing, be available. Does it contain a likeness of what I’m sketching? One of the things that taught me that in writing, was doing things for magazines. I used to do a few articles, it wasn’t a regular thing but certain magazines in British press. And that was beautiful like, you’re trying to capture someone’s recorded history in two hundred words, five hundred words, you know. So, I’m applying that kind of thing to writing, to art, and the art has informed the writing, actually. Symbols, imagery, sketching, it’s nonlinear. Well, usually anyway. It’s usually nonlinear but you’re just trying to get something across, a feel. So, yeah I have a few things in the pipeline as far as that, as far as books. Not one of them is anywhere near completion but they come chapter by chapter, you know?*


*yes, how we all know. Check out Juice Aleem’s work at the links mentioned in the intro paragraph. 

Photo credits: Benji Reid

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